As the potential for significant changes looms in far northeast Denver, a project in Montbello that could end up becoming a flashpoint for these and other changes is slowly taking shape.
Donna Garnett, executive director of Montbello Organizing Committee, discussed the ambitious project publicly last week during a The Far Northeast Area Plan meeting in Montbello on July 12. It’s part of The Montbello FreshLo initiative, which is a broader plan to create a community space centered around a food market.
Garnett spoke to Denverite at length about the proposed project a day later while she visited the Dahlia Campus Farms and Gardens in Park Hill. The project involves building a $30 million mixed-use development called FreshLo Cultural Hub, which Garnett said would be a multi-floor space that will include a grocery store, meeting and retail spaces, a cultural center with a theater and 120 affordable housing units. The grocery store would be operated by Family Tree Food Market.
“We are in the final stages,” Garnett said. “Now we’re raising money. We’ve hired a developer. We’re in the final stages of negotiating for the piece of property that we want. We’re looking to have this whole cultural hub and grocery store be located on the west side of Montbello.”
Garnett said they’re hoping to break ground on the project by the end of August. She said a technical proposal has been submitted to the City of Denver, but they’re still working on the land acquisition.
Currently, the project has funding from the Kresge Foundation, The Colorado Health Foundation and The Denver Foundation, which have so far have funded about $400,000 toward the project. Garnett said they have funded planning and some of the early pre-development costs. They’re currently in the process of working with private investors, other foundations and government agencies to put together the funding package to pay for the Cultural Hub, Garnett said.
“We know it’s very ambitious but it meets a couple of goals,” Montbello Organizing Committee Board Chair and neighborhood resident Chris Martinez said. Funding for the project would come from “a combination of grants and loans, on the local and national level.”
Martinez declined to name the property MOC is looking at for its site since he said it’s still on the market. He added they do have a Plan B and Plan C in place just in case.
Once it’s completed, Garnett said they will use the location for their summer pop-up shop, FreshLo Farm Market. She said she expects the new development will also have space to grow food for the market and develop a walkable loop linking nearby gardens to the facility.
“It’s really important to us that this project reflects what the community wants and so we’ve worked with a local developer, we’ve worked with people who are committed to this being what the residents have planned for and have created and envisioned,” Garnett said.
“This is a wonderful project, it’s very far-reaching,” Garnett added. “I love it that people are starting to call it transformative. But in the end, we don’t want the people who created this vision to be displaced. We want it to be…where they get to enjoy the benefits.”
The farm market is a jumping-off point for this much bigger project.
The FreshLo Farm Market first opened last year to provide fresh food options for residents living in Montbello, where some residents still struggle to find fresh produce. Food for the market is grown locally at Montbello Urban Farm at the United Church of Montbello. Garnett said she the farm produces a majority of the food through the season, with additional food produced by gardens in three local schools.
The FreshLo Farm Market will reopen on July 28 and will run every Saturday starting at 9 a.m. to noon through September. It will be located at 12300 Albrook Drive.
“We’re thinking we’ll probably be able to supply somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of food this summer,” Garnett said.
The seeds for this market — and really the entire project — were planted in May 2016. That’s when MOC was one of 26 organizations in the U.S. chosen by the Kresge Foundation to receive a $75,000 award to plan a “FreshLo” market, which is shorthand for “Fresh, Local & Equitable: Food as a Creative Platform for Neighborhood Revitalization.”
Kresge Foundation describes itself as a private foundation that tries to expand opportunities in U.S. cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts, culture, health and human services. It is based in Troy, Michigan.
Garnett said the Colorado Health Foundation matched the Kresge grant. Before anything was open, Garnett said MOC members knocked on doors, rode buses, hosted meetings and traveled the community to figure out what they needed most. They found access to fresh food was one area in need of improvement.
“A lot of those people that are in those lower income categories actually do most of their shopping at the convenience store,” Garnett said. “Both the Family Dollar and the 7-11 have participated in programs to bring some fresh fruits and vegetables, but it’s not adequate for people by and large.”
Those involved hope the center help keep Montbello’s characteristic diversity intact in the face of more development.
As we saw last week, not everyone is necessarily sold on how changes to the area will positively impact Montbello.
“People have talked about the fact that we’re such a diverse community,” Garnett said, adding Montbello has a mixture of African-American, Latino, African and white residents. She said the cultural hub will give people an opportunity to celebrate and learn about their culture.
Martinez said their plan adds affordable housing options for residents as they begin to face, “a lot of gentrification.” He said they want to make sure Montbello remains diverse.
Providing a space for performances, concerts, talents shows and other community-oriented events give people space to both see and possibly even develop art, Martinez said.
“We want to set it up so that it has a theater, which is something we don’t have in Montbello,” Martinez said. “We want to have a place where people can enjoy the arts, express their creativity.”
Erik Penn, who’s lived in Montbello for about 5 years (he lived in southeast Denver before that) and provided feedback to MOC’s plan, said having a centralized community space could help alleviate some of the wounds left after Montbello High School closed in 2014. Penn is running for the Denver City Council District 8 seat.
“We have the opportunity here to make something more,” Penn said. “One of the things that was pretty traumatic for the community was the closing of Montbello High School … I think for this new space, it’s a homegrown idea, it allows the community to get back together.”
“These are the things that are going to start pulling people together,” Penn added.